She simply was Chatsworth – that was the overriding sentiment among mourners as the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire’s funeral took place on the Derbyshire estate.
Known as Debo to her friends, Deborah the Dowager Duchess passed away peacefully last Wednesday, aged 94 and her funeral took place today at St Peter’s Church in Edensor.
The first clue to the outside world, before the news was officially announced, was the flag flying at half mast atop the grand Chatsworth House.
And floods of heartfelt tributes poured, with many people keen to pay their respects to a woman described as the saviour of Chatsworth.
Politicians, Royalty and tourism chiefs led the initial tributes – and now three books of condolence have been placed in locations across the Chatsworth estate for local residents and visitors to record their thoughts.
One book sits beside a single lit candle in St Peter’s Church in the village of Edensor, where the dowager duchess lived in her later years following the death in 2004 of her husband the 11th Duke Andrew Cavendish. The church will be the location for the funeral service today.
A message read simply: “A beautiful lady who enhanced the world and lived life well.”
Another said: “Chatsworth today is a legacy of the loving dedication of the dowager duchess. The beautiful house and estate cast a spell over those that visit.”
The duchess – the youngest of the six famous Mitford sisters who scandalised and delighted society in their day – and her husband inherited the vast Chatsworth estate when his father died in 1950.
And in the face of huge death duties, and thanks in large part to Debo’s own entrepreneurial spirit, it was decided then that the only way to maintain the property and pay the bills would be to open the house to the public.
The duchess quickly became a driving force behind the enterprise, modernising the family home for all to enjoy.
A second book of condolence has been placed upon her own writing table in the estate’s Stables restaurant, along with scented pelargoniums, which are said to have been among her favourite flowers.
Bakewell-based charity Helen’s Trust is one of the two charities chosen by Her Grace as beneficiaries for donations.
The Dowager Duchess was a stalwart supporter of the charity, from its inception in 2001. From the outset, the Duchess was thoroughly engaged with the charity’s mission to remove obstacles faced by people with terminal illness who wanted to remain at home. This commitment resulted in an extraordinary willingness and generosity in a many forms.
“I remember asking if Her Grace would consider becoming a patron of the charity,” recalls Dr Louise Jordan, Helen’s Trust founder and chairman of Trustees. “Her Grace regretfully declined saying ‘at my age I should be giving things up not taking them on’! It was thanks to Her Grace’s recommendation that the current Duchess remains the patron of Helen’s Trust.”
A variety of fundraising events and activities followed.
After the Duke’s death, and the Dowager Duchess’s move to The Old Vicarage at Edensor, she continued to support the charity, opening her house and gardens, offering pony rides and face painting, once again with the help of her granddaughter in law, Emma Tennant.
Peak District National Park chief executive, Jim Dixon said:“It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire had on Derbyshire. Chatsworth is the nation’s pre-eminent country house. It attracts visitors from Britain and the world, leaving them with a favourable impression of our county and our country. Hundreds of local people, young and old are employed in the house, restaurants and shops. In the local economy, plumbers, builders, bakers and other trades win valuable business from the estate.
“It’s easy to imagine what might have happened if the young Andrew Cavendish, who was to inherit the estate on the death of his older brother, had not fallen in love with the youngest Mitford sister, Debo.
“Undoubtedly, their lifelong partnership was a remarkable one which saw the rescue of Chatsworth from disrepair and huge death duties and its transformation to the great centre of art, literature, heritage, commerce and tourism that it is today.”
He added: “Debo’s vision was to open the house. This was done on her terms. The Duchess set a tone and a standard which today sets the visitor experience at Chatsworth apart from other stately homes.”